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Getting from Here to There



Building Bridges
Japan, <i>Uji Bridge</i>, Momoyama period, ink, colors, and gold on paper
zoom Japan, Uji Bridge, Momoyama period, ink, colors, and gold on paper

 

Can you walk on water? No, of course not! But bridges are one way you can get across a river or stream.

The bridge painted on this Japanese screen spans the Uji River, which flows between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka. Originally built in A.D. 646, it is the third oldest bridge in Japan. The beauty of the bridge and its surrounding landscape made it one of the most famous scenic spots (meisho) of ancient Japan. As the site of many battles, Uji Bridge has great historical significance.

Poets and artists celebrated the bridge in their writings and paintings. At the beginning of the ninth century, a screen picturing Uji Bridge was installed in the imperial palace. This was very important because, at that time, most paintings in Japan featured Chinese subjects. Uji Bridge also served as the setting for the last chapters of a famous eleventh-century novel, The Tale of Genji, by lady Murasaki Shikibu.

By the late sixteenth century, Uji Bridge had become the classic subject for Japanese screens. Scenes of the bridge with willow trees often show the spring and summer seasons. Viewing all twelve panels of this screen (from right to left), you can see that the tree at the far right has smaller, more delicate leaves, whereas that on the left has longer and fuller leaves.

What do you notice most of all about this screen? It’s pretty hard to miss the gleaming gold. Nearly everything—bridge, riverbanks, trees, waterwheel—is covered in gold. Some clouds are made from tiny squares of gold leaf, and some are solid gold leaf. Originally the water was painted with silver, which has tarnished over time. The use of gold and silver was not only extremely lavish, but also quite functional. Placed in large, dimly lit rooms, such golden screens reflected both sunlight and candlelight, helping to brighten the darkest interior.


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1. The Uji River flows from Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, to the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.
2. When the two screens are placed side by side, you can see the progression from spring to summer scene.
3. Both screens gleam with gold.

 

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October 2006